Style over substance isn’t always a bad thing. In Only God Forgives, the style is surrealism and the substance is shocking brutality. Mainstream audiences will hate this film. As the end credits roll, they’ll most likely ask “What the hell did I just watch?” They wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. I’m not entirely sure what I’ve just watched either, but I liked it. Only God Forgives is like a waking dream (or nightmare) about immorality, that takes the viewer into an ugly criminal underworld in Bangkok, with nary a decent human being in sight. Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn reunites with his Drive star Ryan Gosling, only this film makes the artsy/noir-ish Drive look like a conventional crime thriller.
Gosling plays Julian, the manager of a Thai boxing club that serves as the front for a drug smuggling operation. His brother Billy (Tom Burke) murders an underage prostitute, and is in turn murdered by the prostitute’s father. The hit on Billy is sanctioned by Bangkok police chief Chang, (Vithaya Pansringarm) a ruthless ‘lawman’ with a very severe idea of what justice is. He also chops off the father’s hand as punishment for allowing his daughter to become a street walker. Julian and Billy’s mother Crystal, (Kristin Scott Thomas) arrives in Bangkok to collect her firstborn son’s body, but more importantly to exact revenge on his killers. She dispatches Julian to do this, but his conscience won’t allow him to feel the same sense of vengeance as his mother. He tells her, “Billy raped and murdered a sixteen-year-old girl.” “I’m sure he had his reasons”, she responds. There’s nothing like a mother’s unconditional love.
If the synopsis sounds like the movie is a straightforward revenge thriller, it most certainly is not. Refn is more concerned about the way his movie looks than he is the story. It’s shot beautifully, with each frame using a different color palette (mostly neon red lights), and you could take almost any random screenshot from the film and hang it on your wall as a piece of art. We get long shots of Gosling walking and broodingly staring into space; having very little dialogue and conveying ambiguous emotion. In fact, Gosling as leading man only has a handful of dialogue throughout the entirety of the film. His performance is stoic and reserved, and we never get a true sense of who this man is or what he stands for. He’s somewhat an anti-hero, not quite a bad guy but not such a good guy either. Gosling’s character isn’t so different than the stuntman he played in Drive, but again, he’s even more removed from reality; as is the film.
Kristin Scott Thomas gives the most flashy and campy performance in the film as Crystal, the mom from hell. She’s vulgar, evil, and there’s a certain Freudian relationship between her and Gosling. She’s as ruthless, if not more so, as antagonist Chang. Pansringarm’s performance as Chang is also one of the highlights of the film. He puts forth an almost unbearable level of sadism and eeriness. His interrogation of one of Crystal’s henchman features him gouging out the man’s eyes and plunging a large sewing needle through his ear canal. It’s one of the most shocking displays of brutality in recent memory.
You’ll need a strong stomach to sit through most of this. The violence is as graphic as it gets, with decapitations, amputations, throat slitting, and severe beatings courtesy of baseball bats, frying pans, and fists. Chang uses a samauri sword as his means of exacting discipline, and every time he takes that weapon out, you quiver in anticipation of the inevitable savagery you’re about to witness.
For a film that consists of fistfights and shootouts, this isn’t quite an action movie. This is an arthouse film disguised as an action thriller. It’s slow moving, with careful attention to detail and an overall subdued pace. Above all, Only God Forgives is weird. It brings to mind the films of David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch; films about criminal activity, but only on a surface level. Although, what occurs in this film is perhaps more pseudo-intellectual than deep and metaphorical. The meaning of it all can be discussed and analyzed, with no right or wrong answer as to its intentions. In that regard, the film is somewhat of a stylishly experimental and empty mess. However, it’s never less than engaging.
If ever the words ‘this film isn’t for everybody’ held more credence, it’s in describing Only God Forgives. Interminably artsy and grossly inhumane, the film is disconcerting and ‘only God knows’ who the audience for this movie is. It follows the arthouse formula of an ambiguous ending; but come to think of it the beginning and middle are ambiguous as well. This isn’t a pleasant film. It’s rather cynical and pessimistic in its view of the world we live in. However, Only God Forgives is interesting, different, good, bad, dull and entertaining all at once. I can’t quite say I enjoyed it, but I sure did like it.